Jesus learned from a woman begging for a crumb from his table. Can the church do the same?

As the church debates whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, it is surprising we have not heard more about a similar struggle experienced by Jesus. It is the astounding encounter he had with the Gentile woman who begged him for a crumb from his table (Mt.15: 21-28). Her name isn’t even mentioned in the Gospel, but her humble and clever response to a brusque comment by Jesus changed history. She deserves a name because she is a role model for women and men in the church today. Her asking for a crumb is what divorced and remarried Catholics are asking of the church today. Why can’t the church see this and respond as Jesus did?

For the sake of humanizing her, let us call this woman Ruth. Her daughter is ill. We don’t know exactly what the sickness is. Physical? Emotional? Probably a mix of both. She hears that the Preacher is in town…Jesus. He seems to want some anonymity, a moment away from the crowds. Ruth is desperate and somehow manages to get up close to him. She is an outsider, a non-Jew.

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Ruth gets straight to the point. “My daughter is sorely beset by a devil.” Jesus glares at her. Doesn’t she realize that this is the only moment he has for himself the whole day? His answer is downright rude, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and to cast it to the dogs.” Ruth is stunned. Did the Preacher really say that? She knows her accent and clothes betray her. Jews don’t associate with Gentiles. Yet something in his look betrays him—a tenderness beneath the rough words, a hint of openness. She goes for that vulnerability. “Yes, Lord; for even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

This is one of the best responses to a put-down in history. It is nonviolent. It does not respond to brusqueness with the same. It even seems to throw Jesus off balance. He can’t believe that this woman from an alien tribe—one whom he believes is not included in his ministry—has the chutzpah to respond to him, a Jewish man, as an equal. But something seems to shift inside him; he has learned from her. 

After a pause, he says, “O woman, great is your faith! What you want will be done for you.” And we read that her daughter was healed from that moment. What does this Gospel story reveal to us? That Jesus can heal us if we believe in him? But more than the miracle of the daughter’s healing, it is Ruth’s faith—her spunk in challenging Jesus—that grabs us. Ruth offers us a new understanding of faith for Catholics today, a loving and questioning adult faith that the church needs so desperately in order to grow.

A Kingdom for All

An even more striking healing—or “stretching”—took place in that encounter. From his conversation with Ruth, Jesus realized that the Kingdom he was sent to proclaim was not just for the Jews.

This insight must have overwhelmed him. But he did not look back. From then on, Jesus began to reach out more and more to outsiders, to include the marginalized, the ones whom he and his fellow Jews were taught to consider as “other.” He would often be seen eating with tax collectors and sinners, and challenged about this (Luke 15:1f). By the time of his death outside the walls of Jerusalem, even Roman soldiers and thieves were believing in him.

When Catholics share in the Holy Eucharist, we may, out of reverence, instinctively want to exclude those who are divorced and remarried as well as others who do not follow the church’s teachings, especially on sexuality. But we need to keep Ruth’s actions and words in mind, or we will be treating these fellow Catholics as Jesus treated her at first.

It is not fair to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.

Yes, Lord; for even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.

We are all "dogs" in some way, outcasts and sinners who need forgiveness, and that’s why we approach the altar. “This is my Blood, poured out for the forgiveness of your sins,” the priest says as at the consecration. And a few moments later we all pray together with the priest before we come forward for communion, “O Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The Eucharist isn’t a reward for perfection, but medicine for our souls as St. Augustine tells us (Confessions, Bk. 10, 18).

Pope Francis is a person who seeks to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church. By his constant example of reaching out to the marginalized, he is showing us how to welcome all sinners to the table of the Lord. This act of outreach, of “stretching,” continues Jesus’ response to Ruth as we search together for ways to be faithful to the Gospel.

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